Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Moody Christmas Blues

In Northern Minnesota—

Snow falls softly on pines, collects like dust in the bows. Home, the home of my childhood, with my two children, ignites a flood of anxiety in me. I bark at my son, I fade into my phone, I drift at night through the corridors of dreaming, fear disguised as violence, joy in the lives of others.  I am not sad, not depressed, really. I am anxious. The snow falls and fills up space. The white creates a different kind of light. When I arrived I ran through fog on a Sunday afternoon and felt a deep sense of pleasure and relief. Now the snow will cover everything like a suffocation of space, a sucking out of landscapes; the lines of things will disappear. I hate the way my body feels in the cold.

Today, if my sister and her daughter ever arrive, I will walk down to the sauna and light a fire. I will stoke it all afternoon and then sit in it and sweat. I don’t want to shop for Christmas presents. I’m coming out of my funk. In the silence of the forest the house hums.

My mood ebbs and flows. Sometimes there is a violence to it. I am not myself. I over react; I feel rage. I try to ride it out in silence, keeping my body calm or at least away from others.

Moses pours water on the floor, soup on the table (twice), milk on the floor (twice); he will not eat. As a mother, I somehow feel it is my fault. I did this to him. But it is just his own inherited moodiness and his inability to regulate at the age of two and a half. He cannot stop himself from biting a Christmas tree light. I notice that he has the cord in his mouth when the lights blink. The tiny, narrow bulb is gone and two wires remain. Don't do that again, I say, after my mom and I call poison control, the ER, and two of my sisters. 


I ignore the baby. I ignore Moses. I stare out at the snow falling. I drink cold coffee in a salmon colored cup. The cup is smooth. Life is too long. Life is too short. No, it is timeless. I am always right here, in this body. Everything that has happened to me has happened to this very body. Time does not move forward anymore than seasons do. It hovers like weather on the body, casting its mark. We only know time because the body changes. The body weathers.

Christmas tree, Oh, Christmas tree.

Last week I sat with a friend in the co-op café. The window looked out onto rows of cut pines waiting to be purchased. She was in a foul mood. “I don’t like the smell of these dying trees,” she said. I laughed. She’s Jewish. My family was always so proud of our tree that we cut from the forest and dragged home. Even in our shabby apartments in West Virginia and North Dakota our home looked beautiful for the Christmas. Now I wonder about the dying tree thing. 

The baby nurses and nurses. He is always hungry. Moses sits too close to me demanding I draw pictures that he can cut into pieces. The snow falls and I wait for my sister. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Kitties Are the Ultimate Kitsch-- Early morning wanderings

Six in the morning is no longer early these days. I wake on the hour from around 2am until 6 to nurse the baby and then he decides it's time to rustle awake for a couple of hours so I'm up with coffee to play with him. He mostly entertains himself but right now he's grunting and I should do something. I wrap him tight in his blanket and we smile at each other for a while. 

Kitties are the ultimate Kitsch 
I've been reading Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams and last night I was reading her essay on sentimentality, something I've always been a little confused by. She notes that Oscar Wilde wrote that sentimentality is unearned emotion. She likens sentimentality to low cal sweeteners, in that they're sugar without the calories just like emotion without the complication. OK, so here is a passage that I find particularly illuminating from her essay entitled "In Defense of Saccharine" (the essay I've been discussing):

Sentimentality describes the moment when emotion becomes a prop to bolster the affective egos of everyone involved. "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession," Kundera observes. "The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!" 

"Kitsch" refers to art that is overly sentimental or melodramatic. (The contemporary use of the word references stuff like porcelain kitty cats, paintings of the virgin, and pho-fur sofa throws). So in a way sentimentality refers to a type of emotion that is readily understood by all or to cliche emotion. Maybe it's that simple, cliche emotion = sentimentality, which is why it's so hard for me to write after having a baby because everything about love for your baby feels stickily cliche and everything has been blogged about in terms of babies and the highs and lows of parenting. The obscene humor of parenting. The rage of parenting. The extreme high of loving a child. And so on. We are experiencing a golden age of confessional writing and to be frank I am all for it. Honest, cutting, confessional writing is so very human and sometimes cathartic for both reader and writer. But I have always been afraid of sentiment and I suppose this is why I started writing in secret, cryptic poetry that could not be unlocked.

The other day while having tea with friends we began discussing the growing art of oral story-telling. For example, the NPR broadcast "The Moth" features stories told on stage by individuals. In many ways this is a fast growing art form. My friend wondered if story telling was becoming an art because we no longer spent time telling each other stories. This is an interesting idea. Art becomes art when it is no long quotidian. Of course this is in no way a definition of art. If I were to define art I would say it is the expression of ideas and feelings and experiences that we can't readily express in language. I cannot explain to you how I feel about my sons in a simple sentence. I have to create art to reveal or get at the truth of the feeling. I am sentimental when I say, I love these two boys more than I could have ever imagined not because it's unearned emotion (trust me I have earned this love) but because it is unearned language, it is useless language... it's too easy. Still, why is story telling as an art form becoming so popular along with podcasts and talk radio? It's an interesting question and perhaps my friend is right, we live insular lives with technology as our main source of connection with each other. I barely see half my friends but I feel close with them because we email, text, Instagram, Facebook, and occasionally chat on the phone.

Willem baby is asleep now and Moses is up watching "Peep." I heart Peep. The full name is something like Peep and the Big Wide World. It's slow and silly and just the right pace for a two-year-old and yeah, for the record, I'm all for kids watching TV.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

One Last Hurrah to a Dear Old Friend

A childhood friend died of an overdose today. He struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues for many years and had just been released from an institutionalized setting. I knew him for a moment when he was not yet fully submerged in the disease of addiction and before the onset of serious mental health issues. He was bright and funny and full of life. He was a joy to be around (most of the time). But once his disease got ahold of him I did not want to see him.

Over the years I gave him countless lectures, pep talks, advice--sometimes in bars but later on at restaurants or on the street or at my father's small town pharmacy. Once, we met at Riverside so I could do a reading (of my Goddess cards) for him. I had quit drinking by then and was probably urging him to do the same. He was so ernest about the whole thing, insisting that we meet at the Riv and not a my parents' house with all my other siblings around. I think we chugged coffee and he chain-smoked. I can hear his voice, "OK, Emily, OK." But he never wanted to quit drugs and alcohol. It just wasn't going to happen for him.

I have been thinking of him for days now. He floats through my mind as I pour the boiling water into the french press to make coffee. The baby in one arm, Moses on the floor with a toy. I see Dave walking or hear him talking and I think, I haven't thought about him in years (he was in jail for the past two), why does this feel so bad. I think to myself, I shouldn't feel that sad, should I? But it is hard to mourn alone, miles away and not able to attend the memorial or funeral. My husband met Dave, knew who he was, but he didn't know him. My sisters quietly grieve this loss in their own ways. It is not like them (or I suppose me) to carry on publicly about loss. Then I find myself wondering, do I feel sad just because I don't want this to happen to me or to my children or my siblings or parents? Isn't that selfish? Is that what this is? Why do I feel compelled to write about him?

But I know that he touched me in his way. I know that his charming, endearing self was one that I loved. I was on his team. I wanted him to succeed. And, to a certain extent, I think he was the kind of person that made everyone he knew feel special and loved. He was an open, heart-on-his-sleave kind of guy, like many alcoholics and addicts. He took it all in and then he really didn't know how to filter it or deal and so he used in order to obliterate his feelings or just numb out for a little while. This, as we know, over the long haul, doesn't work. Things just get worse, and they did for him. He ended up in trouble from drinking and driving and with some pretty serious mental health issues.

Today I think of the road to his father's house and one of the last times I saw him-- years ago now since I don't live in Minnesota--he was waiting for a ride from my sister and I, standing on the edge of the dirt road in the forest. He was a bulky guy, strong and solid, not overweight, but broad and rangy like he might have been good at tossing a football or making a tackle. His head was down or perhaps his hand was over his eyes, shading them from the sunlight. He ducked into the backseat of the car and said hello. He was quiet for a time, lost in thought and staring out the window, or perhaps he began right away talking about whatever it was that he'd been thinking about as he stood there waiting, as he often did. There was this seamless movement in him from thought to speech. Or perhaps he began pouring his heart out about something that deeply concerned him. He could become fixated.

I remember how he talked about politics (conspiracy theories when he wasn't on his medication). He always wanted to return to school to study political science. He was bright and yet vulnerable in a crushing way. I suppose it was hard to see a big, overgrown boy fall so hard. My sisters and I always had a soft spot for him--one of them dated him for a while. He had a good heart and true spirit. There was something about him that seemed almost possible, if only he could get it together. I wonder how many people wanted to grab him and shake him and tell him to get it together, but only because they could see so much in him that was blocked by his use of drugs and alcohol, the disease of addiction that is only kept at bay through abstinence. But he could never stay clean for long (I don't really think he ever tried) and then he'd end up in the hospital or jail for violating probation. He'd stop taking his medication and we wouldn't see him for a while.

I remember him in Minneapolis, young and hopeful. I see him walking with his head a little down, dipping into his broad shoulders, covered most likely in a slightly warn jacket, his pants a little unkempt and out of style in that heart-breaking way that made you love him more. I want to see him walking away into some other possibility, happily living a boring daily life with a job and kids and a dog. Or perhaps it wasn't boring, it was wild and exciting, but sober. I don't know.

I wish him all the love and peace in the world.

Safe travels my friend and may the light be with you always.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Dream

We abandoned our part-time jobs as baristas, bar maids, hostesses, vegetable farmers, fry cooks, landscapers, nannies, lifeguards, and retail specialists. We left behind our full-time jobs as painters and sculptors, poets and essayists, puppeteers and circus performers. We left town for a country of prairie grass and junipers, of oceans lapping deserts, of great islands of sand and sunset. We took our children, wrapped to our backs, cuddled in wagons and wheelbarrows, walking at our sides. We left our cars in the streets with the windows rolled down and the keys in the ignition. We left our credit cards and tip money, our rolls of cash and bank accounts; we left our designer jeans, red lipsticks, and shaving creams that smelled of cinnamon and shoe leather and lavender; we left our student loans and master’s degrees. We carried dried beans, loaves of bread, books as old as grandmothers. We packed knives and wooden bowls, blocks of butter and bottles of virgin olive oil. We carried hatchets and spades wrapped in burlap.

Our hair grew long and our children dirty as we walked. Our hands grew strong and our fingernails hardened. We found forests of fir with moss floors where we lay our heads and our babes to sleep. We listened to the owls cry in the night and held each other in a different way, from a different fear—a fear that felt necessary and fleeting. Our children curled into us and sighed in their sleep and we dreamed of great mountains with rushing streams filled with fish. We dreamed of the untethered ocean, strong like a god. We dreamed of a home somewhere deep in the earth, thick with mud and grass, with vegetation, where we lived women and men in collusion, green as earth. Round and happy with need.

We had read Thoreau and the Nearing’s; we had read A Sand County Almanac and Silent Spring along with “Howl” and Wendell Berry. We believed in homesteading and self-sufficiency and wood cabins with saunas beside the pond or the stream or the lake. We longed for gardens and chickens and farms with apple orchards. We wanted our children to live freely of the land and we knew it would be hard, but we believed in a better life, as though we might be separate from the rest of the world, free from the need to belong. We believed we could change from the body out, and that sweat and muscle would bloom and bear the fruit of our labor.


We stood in clearings and watched deer; we cried out at the sight of geese flocking home overhead; we lay at night under the blistering stars of a deeper sky and listened to the wolves howl. We learned the names of trees and flowers and birds and mushrooms. We pointed out the constellations we had never been able to see before and taught our children the old myths because history felt necessary, story vital. 

We built cabins in the sides of mountains, barns in the valleys, and stood in the bluffs beside the sea, filled with the sound of the waves as they crashed and shoaled, filled with the distance of the horizon, the sky lipping there. Swallows built their nests in our barns and we welcomed them. Our children grew strong and wild romping through the fir forests, the birch groves and rivers that coiled through the land as they made their way to the sea. Fear left us as we stood in pastures beside sheep, on the tips of mountains looking out letting the world beyond us come in, move through us, form us as it saw fit. We let the weather dictate our lives, the sun our sleeping habits and when we returned to making art, writing stories, puppeteering and drama, we felt content with mediocrity, we were lazy with our craft, our sentences floundered and burst, letters fled the page, women stood on stage and forgot their lines and no one cared. Paintings looked like replicas of the depicted and sculptures stood lifeless in the fields.

Maurice De Vlaminck

Soon our children grew up and left us for the cities, the wars, the marketplace. We grew old alone, together. We walked to the sea and listened to her song when our eyes no longer worked. We lay down on the moss of the fir forest and waited for the owls to cry out, for the sound of the wolves howling, full with longing. We climbed the mountainside and sat among the wild sheep; they nuzzled our furry chins and dry lips and curled up at our sides. We held them. We felt the night drop like a shadow and when we slept we dreamed of our children, full and round like the moon, sleeping in tiny rooms in the city, driving cars and riding subways, sitting in cubicles dressed up in neck ties and heels, sipping cocktails with cherries and lime wedges after eight-hour days, kissing and making babies and filling their bank accounts with numbers under a smoggy sky, filled with angst and love and hope and dreams of their own.  

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lost Dialogue

Andrea Modica, from Treadwell

You know I’m bringing her, her mother almost whispers.
Yes of course, Mac replies.   
You don’t understand, she says.
I want to.

Silence. Then the dog barks and her mother says good-bye.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Goodbye Sweet Lady

Auntie Kris 

This is how I will remember you: Sitting at the bonfire on an August night, the stars in the sky like sparks thrown from your hands, scattered. Your face tanned and narrow and eyes lit with flame. Your easy laughter, your quick love, your stubborn insistence on the rightness of the world. 

There you are on the deck with a book spread open in your lap and Grandma is coming out the door, coffee in hand. You are standing behind the sauna splitting wood, you are sitting in your corner spot, sweating buckets of sweat, yelling, “Throw another blast on, Trish.” You are diving off the end of the dock and swimming under water as far as your lungs will let you, and when you surface you’re half way to the point. You roll on your back and breathe, floating, before your young, beautiful body swims you to shore. You were always half-fish. We all were.

This is how I will remember you: Laughing, holding your sister, singing in your twin off-note voices, “Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters...” while Grandma shakes her head and lights another cigarette and us girls—all piled onto the couch together—squeal with laughter.

This is how I will remember you: Driving that damn red car you told me you loved because “it was all payed off,” my first and perhaps only lesson on money. There are five or six or seven of us girls crammed into the back seat and you and your sister, my mother, are singing something again, and Grandma is telling you to shut-up and we are laughing. Our heads are tied with scarves and our nobby knees are smushed together—a dozen bruises and scratches between us. And you’ll berry-pick until Karissa and I lay down in the grass and claim we’re dead, until Grandma storms off to the car, until the little ones fall asleep in the grass. Later, in the cool of a rainy afternoon you’ll make jar after jar of jam, enough to keep you through the winter because you know come February you’ll need the taste of summer on your morning toast.

This is how I will remember you: Your grandbabies on your lap, in your arms, at your side. Your hands busy sewing quilts and blankets and bags and dresses because your art was given in love. Because giving something was important. And I will remember the poet auntie who wrote of raising her children, of her own childhood, of her Icelandic heritage, of her marriage. I will remember the student who loved Shakespeare classes and wanted to be an English teacher. 

Kris with her dad. 

I will remember the crazy lady that you were; a woman perhaps that never quite fit into the confines of her time. A woman who wanted to travel and write and read and sew and shop and love everyone, but who most of all wanted to be with her family at Burnt Shanty Lake every summer. 

I will remember the books you put into your hands and read year after year until they changed you and the day you promised me five dollars if I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and when I did I understood you a little better. I will remember the years when you ate sunflower seeds all day, spitting the seeds onto a paper plate at the cabin, and the peanuts you ate only after breaking them and two and removing the little "santa clause" from the middle. I will remember the pies and the cakes and the cookies you made because as your daughter would say, sometimes we need to "feed the soul." 

How proud you were of me for studying English and for writing. How proud you were of yourself when you studied and wrote and planned a different future. There were the times you drove me crazy, the times I wanted to scream at you. But then you were there in front of me laughing and telling your stories and making jokes and calling us all honey, and I couldn't stay mad for long. 

My mom, Trish; Kris; Dick; Bob

I will remember your hands and your feet and the slope of your shoulders as you walked down the road, away, away lost in your own world. I will remember the way you daydreamed and loved and believed in all of us. I will remember your courage in the face of death and your refusal to give up your life. I will remember your passion. I will remember the way you believed their was good in us all. Every one of us. 

This is how I will remember you, with your blond hair and your tanned skin in the heart of summer, sitting in peace, quiet and alone, listening and watching and knowing the things you knew, the secrets like tiny poems that shattered in your lap, in your hands, from your lips and disappeared. Fleeting, as always, the world. Beauty like shadow at dusk on an August night when the echo of voices ring the loudest and the children are still splashing in the lake, unwilling to come in for the night, to give up the water and find their beds and their sweet, sweet dreams. And you always and you, will be there in that dusk light--the best light of day--the easy hour when the day is nearly done and our hearts are full, our minds ready, when dreams come easy.